Posts Tagged ‘John Harvey’

November 22 sees the fiftieth anniversary of the first release of The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, my third favourite Kinks album, though the critical consensus these days seems to be that this is Ray Davies‘s masterpiece.  (Muswell hillbillies and Arthur, if you’re asking.)  It was released in the same fortnight in 1968 as the Beatles’ White Album and the Rolling Stones’ Beggar’s banquet, so it never really stood much chance of getting onto people’s turntables back then; I myself didn’t discover it until the early ’70s.  It has aged well and I still love it.  Naturally, this year, as is the custom these days, it is celebrated by the release of a £100+ box set with vinyl etc, remastered again (was that Special Deluxe Edition really issued fourteen years ago? OK … ) and with a new song, Time, from a couple of years later, released meaninglessly as a trailer ‘single’ a few weeks earlier.  Truth be told, Time makes me cringe in its tweeness and passivity; it should have stayed on the cutting room floor.  Nevertheless, as a tribute to this fine album, I am now going to try and clear the backlog of five books here at Lillabullero with reference to it, or at least as close as I can get.

The age of innocence

Edith Wharton‘s The age of innocence (1920) was September’s Reading Group book and it was only to keep faith with the Group that I persisted.  But once I got that it was actually a historical novel, and a narrative emerged, I rather warmed to it.

The age of innocence is a novel that documents a crucial period of social change in America.  It shares, I’d say – in its own way – the philosophy of The Village Green Preservation Society‘s “Preserving the old ways from being abused / Protecting the new ways for me and for you” – no simple exercise in nostalgia – even if the balance here is a bit skewed.  Because, bloody hell, the exponents of those old ways – early 1870s ‘Old New York’ aristocracy – sure are tedious and stiflingly convention-bound.  Edith Wharton skillfully fleshes out an anthropological analysis of the tribes, with an eye to tracing, as one of the characters does, “each new crack in the surface, and all the strange weeds pushing up between the ordered rows of social vegetables“.

The man in the middle is Newland Archer, who conventionally marries but is in love with another.  Head or heart, duty or desire?  ‘Society’ wins (a narratively strategic pregnancy helps the decision).  Interestingly the overwhelmingly female Reading Group saw a strength and guile in wife Mary that I’d skipped over.  I found it odd that it’s a woman writer who gives it to Newland, who she has put at the heart of the book, to say (wild oats had been sown), “ ‘Women ought to be free – as free as we are’ “; though in the saying of which, she slyly adds, he’s “making a discovery of which he was too irritated to measure the terrific consequences.”

The final passages of the novel have Newland looking back over his marriage after his wife’s death – three children, all grown, making their own way – and thinking on balance it had been worth it, sticking with what was respectably expected of him (despite “the taste of the usual” being “like cinders in his mouth“), but acknowledging some aspects of change.  Given the chance of meeting up again with his heart’s desire in Paris, he chickens out at the last minute, preferring the keep the memory shiningly alive.  Given that only moments previously he had been sitting the Louvre, and “Suddenly, before an effulgent Titian, he found himself saying: ‘But I’m only fifty-seven …’ ” this refusal at the last hurdle came as both a huge disappointment to the romantic in me … and, I guess, a recognition that physically, age 57, a century ago, was so much older then.

Edith Wharton has a delicious way with nuance; much pleasure is to be had from it.  Bohemia is acknowledged: “Beyond the small and slippery pyramid which composed Mrs. Archer’s world lay the almost unmapped quarter inhabited by artists, musicians and “people who wrote’ ” – not the only appearance of that ‘people who wrote’ – never mind Old New York’s incomprehension of the “eccentricities of a husband of a husband who filled the house with long-haired men and short-haired women” (plus ca change?).  The prospect of a genuine American culture (opera was big in Old New York society) is celebrated with:

“It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another country.” She smiled across the table. “Do you suppose Christopher Columbus should have taken all that trouble just to go to the Opera with the Selfridge Merrys?”

Then there are the people.  Here’s Newland: “If he had probed the bottom of his vanity (as he sometimes nearly did)…”; one of the women in social action: “Symptoms of a lumbering coquetry became visible in her …“; and Newland’s poor unmarried sister, “who still looked so exactly as she used to in her elderly youth …“.  Could Dickens have bettered the matriarch?:

The immense accretion of flesh that had descended upon her in middle life like a flood of lava on a doomed city had changed her from a plump active little woman with a neatly-turned foot and ankle into something as vast and august as a natural phenomenon.

Why Dylan matters

You could say John F. Harvey‘s Why Dylan matters (William Collins, 2017) is here under false pretences as far as making dubious connections with the Village Green Preservation Society go.  Bob Dylan is obviously a contemporary of Ray Davies, though 1968 was the only year in the decade since he set out in 1962 that he didn’t release a record, but he did use the Kinks’ Party line and Sunny afternoon on his celebrated Theme Time Radio Hour programmes.  Davies himself has said (in his X-Ray: the unauthorised autobiography), “I had always distrusted Bob Dylan as a songwriter, in the same way at college I had distrusted Pablo Picasso as a painter.”  Callow youth mellowed though, and “The only thing I had against him was that he had changed his name – but then I guess that was his privilege“.  However, Lillabullero has a backlog to clear and it’s staying in here.  They both admire Hank Williams.

Why Dylan matters is the most original Dylan book I have read in a long time, and I have read a few, and then some.  Richard F.Thomas moved to the US from New Zealand in 1974 to pursue an academic career:

For the past 40 years, as a classics professor, I have been living in the worlds of the Greek and Roman poets, reading them, writing about them, and teaching them to students in their original languages and in English translation. I have for even longer been living in the world of Bob Dylan songs, and in my mind Dylan long ago joined the company of those ancient poets.

He had a Eureka! moment when he was listening to Lonesome day blues on the Love and theft album of 2001 and, “I heard Virgil, loud and clear in the tenth verse“.

Dylan’s songs have been part of my song memory since my mid-teens, but it would be decades before they became more fully aligned in my mind with the Greek and Roman poets I was beginning to read back then. And it was chiefly in the twenty-first century that Dylan started to reference, borrow from, and “creatively reuse” their work in his own songs.

Since 2004 Thomas has been running a seminar programme for freshmen at Harvard.  This book is a distillation of that course, looking at Bob Dylan’s songwriting and recordings from the folk period through to the Sinatra covers phase.  It’s a revelation.  He goes back afresh to the Hibbing High School Yearbook of 1959.  Where most haven’t looked further than the prophetic ‘Little Richard’ aspiration, he finds Dylan was an active member of Latin Club, which he joined in 1956, and takes it from there, putting a unique spin on proceedings.

Fully aware of the irony of the Desolation Row citation, he riffs to great effect on T.S.Eliot – “fighting in the captain’s tower” – and his take on plagiarism from an essay in his The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism of 1920: “Immature poets borrow; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”  And, among other things touched on in Why Dylan matters, his Nobel Prize ‘speech’ makes a whole lot more sense now.

This is … a book about how Dylan’s genius has long been informed by the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome, and why the classics of those days matter to him and should matter to all of us interested in the humanities.

It is also a book which made me succumb and buy Triplicate, the 3 CD addition to the previous two albums of Frank Sinatra ‘covers’, which Thomas contextualises.  I swore I would never buy Triplicate after the first two, but it proves to be a plaintive and genuine collection, relaxed, regretful, and restful.

Normal people

I liked Sally Rooney‘s Normal people (Faber, 2018) so much I read it again.  I’ve seen it described as a Romeo and Juliet type romance, but there aren’t any clans as such.

Kinks connection: Connell Waldron is David Watts personified: “Lead the school team to victory / And take my exams and pass the lot.”  It’s a song from Something else by The Kinks, the album that preceded Village Green Preservation Society.  “And all the girls in the neighbourhood / Try to go out with David Watts“.  The neighbourhood is a small town in the west of Ireland.  Whereas Marianne Sheldon “exercises an open contempt for people in school. She has no friends and spends her lunchtimes alone reading novels. A lot of people really hate her.”

Both are from one-parent households, but Connell’s mum cleans for Marianne’s soul-less bitch of a mother in the big house, where she lives with an arsehole of an elder brother; Marianne is known to have had mental problems.  They’re compatico intellectually, the sharpest of their year, and they start sleeping together, but it’s a secret (he doesn’t want his mates to know).  They are not ‘a couple’, and continue to not be one for a lot of Normal lives, which follows their relationships, separations and personal crises through university – Trinity College, Dublin, where she‘s in her element socially and he isn’t – and post-grad.  Other parallel reversals in their fortunes follow as things progress.

The book has eighteen sections, or episodes, covering four years: the first is entitled January 2011, and is followed by Three weeks later (February 2011) and so on to February 2015.  The largest gap is seven months, the smallest 5 minutes.  It’s brilliantly handled, the personal focus being swapped between them.  Immediacy is achieved by the stark use of the present tense, whereby the smallest detail reverberates, while within that the narrative falls back into an explanatory but still right there past tense making sense of their misunderstandings, absences, difficulties and misdeeds.  There’s a lot of dialogue which, as in her previous novel, is executed without the help of speech marks; it works.  The prose delivers clarity, crystal moments; manages to be forensic and it sings:

  • Early in their relationship: “Connell, as usual, did not speak or even look at her. She watched him across classrooms as he conjugated verbs, chewing on the end of his pen.”
  • After another quarrel she gets out the car on a garage forecourt: “A crow on the forecourt picks at a discarded crisp packet.” [talk about seeing through his eyes!]
  • Marianne is taking a sip of coffee when he says this, and she seems to pause for a moment with the cup at her lips. He can’t tell how he identifies this pause as distinct from the natural motion of her drinking, but he sees it.”
  • Her boyfriend at in Dublin: “Jamie’s dad was one of the people who had caused the financial crisis – not figuratively, one of the actual people involved.” [!!]
  • ” … her breath rises in a fine mist and the snow keeps falling, like a ceaseless repetition of the same infinitely small mistake.”
  • Connell, depressed, goes to see a student counsellor: “Now he looks up at Yvonne, the person assigned by the university to listen to his problems for money.” [But she helps]

Sally Rooney is only 27 and has already published two astonishingly accomplished novels.  There’s a passage two fifths of the way in which captures the young person’s absolute fantasy of the marriage of intellect and sex hoped for at university happening (“he has the sensation that he and Marianne are like figure-skaters“) and, futile though it is, one cannot help but speculate how much of herself is in which characters.  There is also a discussion of the futility of author readings, questioning the literary industry function, of books being merely “status symbols“, which nevertheless is the occasion that lifts Connell out of his doldrums.

I have seldom cared so much about two people in a novel, nor wanted so much for them not to be unhappy.  It’s left hanging, of course, but there are grounds for hope.

Body & Soul

It was a nice surprise to see a new John Harvey novel sitting on the shelves in the local library – I’d thought he’d given up –  and Body & soul (Heinemann, 2018) has not been a disappointment.

Kinks connections are minimal: the murdered man is an artist who has a studio in the Old Piano Factory in Kentish Town, just down the road from the Boston pub in Tufnell Park, where the Official Kinks Fan Club has its annual Konvention; John Harvey has an entry in the Kinks in literature page here at Lillabullero for a brief allusion to Waterloo Sunset in In a true light, the first of his post-Resnick novels.

I was fond of Charlie Resnick, who lasted for ten finely crafted novels, but his successors never quite hit the spot for me.  Body & soul is the fourth and last in the series featuring ex-Detective Frank Elder, and it again calls into play his daughter, Katherine, who had such an awful time of it in the first, Flesh and blood.  (There was a time when it was highly dangerous to be a fictional detective’s daughter – as both Banks and Rebus can concur).  Here’s Elder’s back story; Harvey, who also publishes poetry, is good on character:

Faced with probable disciplinary action and his wife’s flaunting infidelity, a teenage daughter he no longer seemed to recognise, never mind understand, Elder had done the sensible adult thing. Thrown his toys out the pram. Handed in his resignation and … hastened himself as far away as he could without leaving the country entirely.

Body & soul is a police procedural that roams the land: Kentish Town, trendy Hackney, Cornwell, Nottingham, somewhere on the north-east coast; the trains run smoothly.  There are two narratives at play with Katherine as the link.  The art milieu of the murdered man is nicely done (“Art, Elder said as if it were an infection, it gets bloody everywhere.”), and the solution to his murder comes late in the investigation after a few red herrings and the dead man’s first wife has returned from holiday.  The detective leading the case is an interesting woman, a lesbian, with a wry unconventional partner for a copper, who suffers the usual slings of the copper’s wife:

When she had first been stationed at Holmes Road as a young detective constable, about the best you could have hoped for would have been instant coffee from a greasy spoon. Now there were three chain outlets and four independent coffee shops within easy walking distance. The high street was otherwise dominated by charity shops and estate agents. Maybe that was how the world was now divided: those who’d happily fork out close to three pounds for a flat white and those who could not. The yin and yang of capitalism, as Rachel liked to put it.

At the climax of the second narrative strand, we are in deep police procedural territory, an area most don’t reach:

Bastard,’ the lead officer said quietly and shook his head. Already he was thinking about the debrief with the Chief Superintendent, the written reports his team would have to make, the photographs, the video, the inevitable investigation by the IPCC. And for what?


More than once in Kate Atkinson‘s Transcription someone says, or mutters, “This England“.  And despite the fact that ” Countryside’ was more of a concept for Juliet than a reality“, one of those Englands is that addressed in The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society.  The lyric of the title song has the line “God save little shops, china cups and virginity“, and a purloined Sèvres porcelain cup plays a minor part in showing us that our heroine is not without taint.  But by 1950, Juliet Armstrong is working in BBC Schools, where they are recording a programme called Singing Together:

Singing Together, Juliet thought. Schools seemed to be fixated on an Old England of sea shanties and ballads and folk songs. And maidens, lots of maidens. […] They were reinventing England, or perhaps inventing it. […]

      ‘This England – is it worth fighting for?’ [a.n.other asking] It depended on whose side you were on, she supposed.

And so, my love affair with Kate Atkinson continues.  Things were getting a bit shaky early on – the bastard child of Victoria Wood and Graham Greene? – but for me it all suddenly kicked into gear when we return to 1950 – page 177 in the hardback, to be exact.  And near the end (p315 of 327) I’m metaphorically punching the air in jubilation, when at the bottom of the page, in the course of an interrogation, Juliet is warned: “Come now, quite enough of exposition and explanation. We’re not approaching the end of a novel, Miss Armstrong“.  I love the games she plays.

Transcription is a spy novel with bells on, deadly serious, but also a lot of fun, with the usual entertaining collection of characters as supporting cast.  We start briefly with a (what proves to be fatal) road accident in London, in 1981; Juliet back in England for the first time in thirty years.  1950 and she’s not having much fun at the BBC, but suddenly reminded, haunted by what she did in the war.  1940 and she’s a spy, part of an MI5 sting operation scuppering a potential enemy Fifth Column; something bad had happened too.  Back in 1950 we find she still provides the odd overnight safe house venue for the security service.  We see what had been on her conscience back in 1940 again, and then, back in 1950 and … HUGE TWIST (for me, anyway).

Well I certainly didn’t see it coming.  Though, looking back, there’s a whacking great clue right there on the opening page.  Never mind the flamingo on the cover.  I shall read Transcription again some time soon – I always do with Kate – and doubtless I shall discover a couple more.  There are some useful pages at the back of the book where she talks about her research and sources.

Along the way, the Atkinson signature quirks and tangents.  Juliet will often momentarily drift off in a conversation with a “Rhymes with …”  to herself.  “Reader, I didn’t marry him,” she reports; not the first time that one’s been used, I’m sure, but it still gets me every time.  She struggles with the men in the ‘office’: “A girl could die of old age, following a metaphor like this, Juliet thought. ‘Very nicely put, sir,’ she said.”  Being briefed for an undercover appearance at a posh pro-Nazi soirée, “Juliet felt rather ashamed, as her mind had been on what dress to wear this evening rather than bottomless pits of evil.”

Juliet has an eye for a simile, too: “She had fierce eyebrows and seemed mournfully Russian, sighing in the tragic way of a woman whose cherry orchard had been chopped down …“, while in describing a struggle, “She was made of steel. It was like dealing with Rasputin, not a middle-aged woman from Wolverhampton“; called Dolly.

She gets to discussing existentialism at work one day:

‘We have all walked in the valley of the shadow of death. Do you despair, Miss Armstrong?’
Hardly ever. Occasionally. Quite often. ‘Not at all,’ she said. ‘And anyway, if everything is pointless, then so is despair, isn’t it?’

Meanwhile (sorry about the ad) …






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Blimey.  Done more this last week than since the last time on holiday.  So the intention here is for whistle stops, and given that brevity has been conspicuously absent from Lillabullero for some time now it should be good training.  Let us first bring on the books …

Scan heft front Scan heft backHeft

First thing to say about the edition of Liz Moore‘s Heft (Hutchinson, 2012) I read is: What a great cover, reflecting as it does beautifully the house in which a lot of the novel’s action takes place; and I love the steps leading up to the barcode on the back – take a bow Nathan Burton.  Click on the back cover and you’ll get some specifics, but without giving too much away – it says it’s ‘restorative’ on the cover – I’ll just add it’s a story of four lost souls, vividly told alternatively by two of them, one of whom rather annoying never spells out ‘and’, which is represented by an ampersand throughout his testimony.  The one who doesn’t make it, a particularly significant one, we only meet by hearsay and in her letters.  I zipped through Heft, engaged and moved by their various wretched situations; I don’t think the teenage boy would be out of place in a Donna Tartt novel.  It’s a really good read, the more so if you don’t think about it too hard; it suffers, this cynic would say, for all its contemporary New York locale, from a touch of that good ol’ American (modern Dickensian) sentimentality.  I read it because it was a Reading Group choice, but I liked it well enough, have no regrets for the time spent.

Darkness darknessDarkness, darkness

I’ve missed Charlie Resnick so it was good to see John Harvey had bought him back for a final fling with Darkness, darkness (Heinemann, 2014); Harvey’s other lead characters never came near Resnick’s resonance.  No longer a copper but working as a humdrum civilian investigator in the police service – “keeping the stairlift away” – he gets actively involved in a case again when a body is found in the process of a street demolition in an ex-mining village.  It’s a case going back to the dark days of the miners’ strike, a political milieu full of perils for the fiction writer which Nottinghamian Harvey treats even-handedly – and cites sources and contacts in an appendix to this end – while hiding nothing:

‘There was a lot of what we did that wasn’t right,’ Resnick said eventually.  ‘A lot we should have done differently or not done at all.  And a great deal of what happened locally, well, that was taken out of our hands. Not much of an excuse, maybe, but there it is.  But I met some good people, no mistaking that.  Either side of the picket line.’

Scargill’s tactics – how things could have been different in the Notts coalfields – get a critical airing too.  The scars of the conflict are still there as the investigation proceeds three decades on, with the women’s part in the strike an important element of the plot.  Chapters describing events concerning the murdered woman at the time of the strike cut intriguingly into the main investigation narrative.  The outcome is a long way from what might have been at the start, with the crucial intellectual breakthrough in the case down to Resnick’s passion for jazz, which also gets a familiar airing in passing throughout.

Darkness, darkness is a worthy coda to the canon.  His personal situation – ageing, wearied, crotchety, grieving, still interested – is affectionately and adeptly handled, and, fans, rest assured: he doesn’t die.

Pedant’s corner: in the ongoing query as to what editors and proof readers do for their money these days, how do you flick your headlights at someone “waiting patiently to overtake”?  And would a pro-strike miner get away with making a speech criticising the “false promises” of the NUM rather than, as it should obviously read in context, the NCB (p221 in the paperback)?

xoa-coverlores1Anais Mitchell

Saw Anais Mitchell at a stupidly un-sold-out Stables on Monday – the side seats were empty – but if anything that added to the intimacy.  Support and occasional accompanist Rachel Ries opened with a set of songs that kept the audience fully engaged, and – nice touch – was joined by her friend Anais for her last number.  Anais came out and was stunning from the outset.  She’s a decent singer, with a neat inflection, and a fine acoustic guitarist with a folksy presence that belies the power of her compositions.  She has an endearing habit of – standing with her guitar throughout – fidgeting about on her feet, (mostly softly) stamping or shuffling, the tour de force being a natural/naturalised balancing on one leg temporarily resting the other on the calf of her standing leg.  Her voice is much stronger live than heard on previous records, and the spare unaccompanied performances of songs from Hadestown and Young man in America (especially an intense Why we build the wall from the former, where opera-style, it’s sung by someone else, and the title track of the latter) really gripped emotionally; both are on Xoa, the fine new album of re-workings illustrated here.  Young man in America is a devastating, concerned song, looking into the void.  If she weren’t a song writer she’d be a writer, no question.  Wearing pretty new H&M dresses – I’m only telling you this because she told us – she and Rachel, when the latter came out again to add harmonies or piano, towering I guess a foot over Anais, were enjoying each other’s and our company.  It was a great night and, icing on the cake, for an encore, lovely touch, unplugged and un-miked they stepped in front of the monitors and gave us a thoroughly acoustic little country ditty.  Refreshing (well I’ve not seen it done before) and so satisfying.  Audience exit smiling.

MK Rose Nov 11Scribal Armistice

Tuesday was Armistice Day and we joined a small group of MK Humanists joined local worthies and other members of the public at the secular civic act of Remembrance at the MK Rose.  A bit blowy, but it was a relief it kept dry.  Not exactly massed ranks but everyone pleasantly surprised at the size of the turnout, a genuine gathering, the feeling being that this was now an established event in the civic calendar.  A feature of the ceremony, along with all the usual – the Exhortation, Last Post, Reveille, the laying of the wreaths and the Kohima Epitaph – was the reading of Day of names, an apt poem written by MK Poet Laureate Mark Niel for the occasion.

Scribal Nov 2014And the theme continued in the evening, with the November Scribal Gathering featuring a moving 20 minute reprise extract from The hell where youth and laughter go, the World War 1 commemoration in poetry put together earlier in the year by the late Scribal regular (and many other things) Dick Skellington.  Remembrance of one sort or other became something of a theme as the evening progressed with Alzheimer’s the topic of a Caz epic and touched on by others.   Couple of notable first time poets of distinction were blooded (rotten metaphor for a vegetarian, I know, but it is a rite of passage), while Mr Gurner performed a Japan classic, solo on the modern equivalent of Sparky’s Magic Piano, and Mr Frost was back in charge of proceedings (though, if memory hasn’t failed, sans chapeau.

Terror and wonderLondon libraries

And so to London for a celebration, but first Terror and wonder at the British Library.  A wide-ranging exhibition sub-titled The Gothic Imagination had me absorbed for a couple of hours or more.  Always a favourite place to visit in London, I was enticed this time by Andrew Graham-Dixon’s three parter on the telly, which for the first time seemed to make sense for me of the relation of Gothic architecture to all the horror stuff, from John Ruskin to The wickerman in easy stages.  Not so much of Ruskin and the general architecture here, but there was plenty else to take in.  Like Castle of Otranto author Walpole’s Strawberry Hill villa (hence Strawberry Hill Gothic as per Stony’s St Mary & St Giles Church) and Dr Dee’s obsidian scrying mirror that was part of Walpole’s collection.  Indeed, many things; I’ll just point at random to a goth adaptation called Jane Slayre (there were more); an aged cabinet housing a similarly aged but impressive ‘Vampire slaying kit’ (no example found older than the early ’70s);  original illustrations from Patrick Ness’s A monster calls (which Lillabullero raved about this time last year); and as part of a photographic essay of a goth weekend at Whitby, a goth football team (or is it even a goth football tournament as part of the entertainments?)  For the first time in my life the thought occurs that I might actually read Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Different kind of horror show at the 50th birthday ‘celebration’ of the iconic Swiss Cottage Library, which just happened to be the first port of call of my 40 year library career.  Missed the first introductory bit because Transport for London deemed it necessary to close Swiss Cottage station for the brief time I needed to use it so had to walk back down the Finchley Road (and nearly got run down by a honking taxi – one forgets about London traffic), but I was reassured later I’d missed nothing.  Then a rambling interview all about the building with a surviving member of Basil Spence’s architectural practice, and absolutely nothing about how it was a beacon in the library world for a decade, about the good old days of a thriving library, no recollections of how it felt to use it or work there.  Then some sort of performance art/mime performance that nodded to all the library clichés (“shhh…”) while most of us nodded off, culminating in a less than rousing ‘Happy birthday’.  Orange juice and crisps!  Good to see old colleagues, though, and even better, old friends in the pub afterwards.


Photo taken from the MK Gallery website http://www.mkgallery.org/exhibitions/ where there is a lot more information.

An-My Lê

Went back for a second look at the An-My Lê exhibition at Milton Keynes Gallery.  As a child she was airlifted out of Vietnam near the end of the war to settle in America.  Was really impressed with the Events ashore sequence of large colour photographs in the Long Gallery.  Her subject is war and the military but she’s not a war photographer; rather she, to quote the leaflet, “explored the myth and memory of war.”  There a some stunning compositions here – like the hospital ship in the accompanying photo, and the medics awaiting casualties – beautifully composed in both sense of the word.  There is quietness, stillness, vehicle patterns in the snow and other seemingly set pieces, but such is the subject matter there must always be the unstated implication you cannot escape, even in the missions of humanitarian aid, of potential violence, the uniforms, behind the picture.  It’s an extraordinary feeling, not so much alarming as haunting.  Thought the video installation worked too – on one wall black and white close-ups and middle shots of troops in training being instructed, filmed movie quality; on the adjoining wall at right angles, long-range, less focussed film of a landscape in which a training exercise battle is taking place, the soldiers like ants.

Further musical adventures

Hey, and Saturday the awesome energy of women dancing at a party (happy birthdays L & S) with three bands – The Outside This, The Box Ticked (Waterloo!), and the impressive Fear of Ray.  Which gives me a chance to introduce events the next day with …

… but there was no fear of Ray at this year’s Official Kinks Fan Club Konvention at Tufnell Park’s Boston Arms.  And indeed, Ray Davies did turn up briefly to wish us well and lead us through a truncated You really got me (50 years old this year, same as, I suddenly realise, Swiss Cottage Library).  Now in the past I’ve given this escapade a big write-up and it’s got flagged in the splendid Kinda Kinks unofficial website and I get more visitors here at Lillabullero in the next couple of days than I get in a month.  But  I can’t see that happening this year.

Waterlow Park 2014.  Not the usual autumn leaves pic.  Something more reflective.  Oh, and Where's Wally?

Waterlow Park 2014. Not the usual autumn leaves pic. Something more reflective. Oh, and Where’s Wally? (Click and click again to enlarge).

But first, the annual pilgrimage to Highgate’s Waterlow Park, where I spent many a pleasant hour when I first moved to London.  And down Dartmouth Park Hill to the Boston with cranes much in evidence on the London skyline.

The thing is, the Konvention used to be special.  But for the Kast Off Kinks these days it’s … well it’s not quite just another gig, because (apart, of course for Dave) they’re all there, including Deb and Shirlie, and this is hard-core Kinks fans, who come from far and wide.  Now they’re regularly gigging throughout the land, not much new is happening on stage.  Not that they do not put on a decent show, but the sound is crap.  The bass, with either Nobby or Jim playing, is – there’s probably a technical term for it, but – too fucking loud an awful lot of the time.  No, I don’t swear very much on Lillabullero.  The bass coming out of the speakers is at times serious industrial noise pollution rather than music and it drowns out Ian Gibbons’ fine keyboard tinklings when he hasn’t got said keyboard functioning as an organ – his swirling away behind certain songs was a musical highlight for me.

KOK Phil Anthony WardDave Clark (the other Dave Clark, the one who’s still alive) puts in his usual sterling performance in the Ray and Dave roles (though thankfully not fighting among himself) and the others were fine.  I dunno.  Maybe it’s the familiarity, and/or I’m getting old and jaded.  Also, there were (no bad thing in itself) backing singers – here’s photographic evidence.  I certainly saw three young Swedish women trot through the crowd onto and off the side of the stage more than once, and heard them introduced, and Deb and Shirlie were there too, but apart from the latter two’s solo spots I never heard any of their contributions.  The sound improved for the closing rock and roll sequence and the final rousing Louie, Louie was great as ever, with Ian’s percussive Hammond-setting extemporisation outstanding.

And another thing …  Oh yes, it was too crowded – uncomfortably so; to quote one of Ray’s songs, “too many people.”  To be honest I have to say that the not necessarily worthiest part of me says I preferred it when Ray Davies was an unacknowledged national treasure.  Still, you have to pay tribute to the hard work that goes into this shindig, so again, thanks OKFC.  It’s always good to greet old friends and Kink community acquaintances.  But next year can we have raffle tickets that don’t change colour under the UV lights, please?

Dodo Bones by danni

Percussionist hidden, not a 4-legged Robbyn Snow. Photo (c) Danni Antagonist

The Konvention is an afternoon gig, so I’m back in time for the excellent Dodo Bones at the Old George.  Robbyn Snow has an extraordinarily expressive voice – country-tinged soul (maybe) contralto is the best I can describe it.  Tonight as well as regular partner, guitarist Stephen Patmore – they often gig as a duo – they are more than ably accompanied by Ian, the one in the Antipoet with the double bass, and the augmented – bass drum pedal attached and one-man band cymbal on the other foot – cajon percussionist hidden in the picture.  And a fine time was had.  Their own more than decent songs were interwoven with some craftily crafted self-confessed “cheesy” covers.  So you suddenly realise it’s a countrified Let me entertain you, they’re playing, and it works beautifully – a better song than you expected.  Specific lines in a raunchy Rihanna track with lyrics approaching the status of an instruction manual is greeted with laughter; “I am so pleased you laughed at that,” says Robbyn.  Spoiler alert: they close with Hey hey we’re the Monkees.  A delightful evening.

 Actual dodo bones

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It’s not that often I go to the cinema.  Blame that on a string of disappointments (film critics? – huh!) and other people (the shared experience?) as far back as the late ’70s; that and after feeling ennobled by the first one, coming out of the second Lord of the rings film feeling like I’d been beaten up.  But such was the buzz around Michael Hazanavicius’s The artist (2011) that I was tempted back for an afternoon screening and I was knocked out.  As any fule kno by now – though they were still warning everyone who bought a ticket at the tills – it’s a silent movie.  Set in late ’20s Hollywood, during the time of the changing of the guard with the introduction of talkies, it’s lovely stuff.  No clichéd dialogue for a start, and lots of neat visual gags in the background to supplement the basic good-natured hommage to the history of storytelling cinema.  Beautifully paced and played, with good old-fashioned male and female (I’m in love) leads, it’s an intellectually and emotionally satisfying cinematic experience, a joy in fact.  Go see if you’re at all tempted.

Interestingly enough, mid-way through The artist there is a dream – well, for the silent movie heart-throb awakening to the reality of the brave new talkie world – nightmare sequence when the music stops and all you get are silence and disproportionately loud domestic sound effects.  It’s a disorientation that takes us down the conceptual road to the new show at Milton Keynes Gallery. Artist Daria Martin‘s ‘survey exhibition’ consists of four short 16mm films, projected on screens in the dark.  I’ll quote from the exhibition guide notes:

These films combine elements of painting, sculpture, performance, dance and music […] Martin’s work often raises questions about what it means to be ‘touched’ by cinema and alternates playfully between luring the viewer through rich sensuous images and pushing them back into an awareness of artifice.  This intentionally crafted ‘push and pull’ draws attention to the essential contradictions of the medium of film.

Maybe.  I wouldn’t vouch for it but I am being drawn into ‘getting’ – for want of a better term – video art (for want of a better term).  The artspiel in the guide goes on (as it invariably does), but I was riveted by Harpstrings and lava (2007); it was like walking into a surrealist painting – de Chirico maybe, or Max Ernst – with a formal harpist playing music I couldn’t quite place and wasn’t quite atonal and I was indeed strangely enchanted.  In Soft materials (2004) “two performers trained in body awareness and acutely sensitive to the nuances of movement” approach specially prepared robots ” as if they were sentient beings.”  Looked like a very odd fluttering dance routine to me, but it fascinated.  The newest film, the title piece, Sensorium tests (2012), revolving around the notion of ‘mirror touch synaesthesia‘, will probably be more interesting if I revisit it, which I probably will.

I always look forward to a new John Harvey novel.  I think he’s the best writer of the British crime big three (no surprises: take a bow Ian Rankin and Peter Robinson) showing an economy and subtle matt polish that owes, I guess, to his being a poet, too.  He can usually be relied upon to juggle parallel narratives skillfully, drawing you along at a pace, but I have to admit to a certain disappointment with Good bait (Heinemann, 2012).  On the police procedural level it works just fine, these mean streets and the Harvey compassion are in evidence as ever, but there is an artistically deliberate (I suspect) indeterminacy about the link between the two narrative strands – an East European crime boss who hardly actually appears – that doesn’t really gel into a satisfying crime novel; I think the point is that life’s like that, but then, so what?

There are two police operations in progress, two main protagonists. The first, in London, is Karen, a youngish black woman detective on the Met murder team working in the sharply drawn capital (with a side trip up the M1), while the second is Trevor, a career sidelined good Samaritan ‘tec in Cornwall who graduates to white knight status, spending time in rural France, via London and an ex-footballer private eye mate in Tufnell Park. I’m not sure Karen and Trevor ever actually meet, though they’d probably make a nice couple.

I will still look out for his next book, but apart from what I’ve already said, there are three problems, really.  The first relates to John Harvey, the second to Brit crime in general, while the third applies specifically to Good bait. Plus it must be said there is a big musical bonus.

  • The Resnick problem. I hate to have to say this, and I understand why he had to go, but I miss him and his food stained ties. The people at the centre of subsequent books, even Frank Elder, all blur for me. A couple from Good bait may even have appeared earlier in the oeuvre …
  • The rise of the East European organised crime gangs has become a blight, a dead hand, on crime fiction, a bit like child abuse was a decade or two back. I know, I know, it’s a real problem, but these days my lids start to droop at the first hint of people smuggling.
  • In Good bait there is a climax to the French episode which brings together the resolution of a sexual tension narrative strand and the couple in hiding being found by the representatives of those they are hiding from, which culminates in Trevor getting knocked unconscious by intruders at the moment of … you guessed it. A big bang indeed. Is JH actually putting himself forward as a candidate for the Bad Sex Award? Sorry, disappointing.
  • What was not disappointing was the steer to some music (link below). The title of Good bait comes from a jazz standard, an old Count Basie tune that’s been much recorded over the years. Trevor hears it or plays it at various points in his odyssey. It’s one of those jazz tunes – not a song – that is just out there and I couldn’t hum it for you even now. There are plenty of interesting takes on it to be found on Spotify, and I liked the long Dexter Gordon treatment. But the Nina Simone recording is magnificent.  As JH warns, it starts quietly and slowly, so give it time to build and just prepare to be stunned.  Enjoy:


Damn.  I thought that should have embedded but seemingly not.  Oh well, the link’s there.  Enjoy.

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I can now reply in the affirmative to enquiries as to whether I’ve read ‘The girl with the dragon tattoo‘ (2005, English edition 2008).  It does keep cropping up.  And yes, the first book in Stieg Larsson‘s ‘Millennium‘ trilogy really does pick up the more you get into it and is indeed a roller coaster ride of a crime thriller of great ingenuity with its heart in the right place. The cynic in me  was in overdrive from the corny Prologue – a framed pressed flower arriving every year on the anniversary of an unsolved mystery – and there must be a large element of fantasy identification a la James Bond in journalist Mikael Blomkvist, not to mention what could be argued is the over the top cut-and-paste  creation of Lisbeth Salander, the computer wiz social misfit of the book’s title; you could also add gruesome serial killing to the mechanical writing agenda too, later on.  Suspension of such cynicism has to be the name of the game though, as the stories kick in and you are engaged on so many levels, not least being the critique of financial capitalism crucial to the main sub-plot.  Lisbeth is simply one of the great literary creations of the age – edgy, fascinating, full of surprises; one fears many lesser clones will follow in her wake.  The book is a great read, simple as that.

Still on crime fiction, I’ve just read John Harvey‘s new collection of short stories, ‘A darker shade of blue‘ (Heinemann, 2010) which includes stories involving Charlie Resnick (hurray!) and other cops who have appeared in Harvey’s subsequent novels, and introducing Jack Kiley, an ex-footballer ex-Met North London-based private eye, who could get interesting – there’s not many writers come this close to putting Chandler and Hammett in a British context.  Some of the stories were in last year’s Nottingham published slim volume ‘Minor key‘ but it was no bother to meet them again, in particular the stories set in Soho of the late 1950s and early ’60s.  In his preface Harvey mentions the possibility of a novel addressing that scene; on this evidence, yes please.  The music here is pretty much jazz all the way, a refreshing change from Rankin and Robinson.  I have to say I’m coming round to the idea that as a writer Harvey is top of this particular pile, particularly when he doesn’t wear his liberal Guardian sensitivities actually on his sleeve, and that he’s also a poet counts here.  Great dialogue too, driving the narrative.  The title of the book is significant.  The contemporary stories here are dark, dealing with lives gone badly wrong – a soldier back from Iraq at the end of his tether, sink estates, immigrant workers – all the stuff of sad pathetic tales fresh from the newspapers, without much pathos.

Music:  There’s a dynamite black and white tv clip of a leather waistcoat clad Thomas John Woodward singing a knock out version of Ray Charles’ ‘What’d I say’ in the days when he’d just stopped being Tommy Scott fronting Tommy Scott and the Senators but still with them backing him; it’s a song that was in the repertoire of a lot of beat groups back then and one you wish they wouldn’t bother with – the original was so good – but here was a powerful vocalist who did it justice in body and soul.  So I’ve always seen the subsequent career of Tom Jones as a bit of a disappointment, though it’s hard to imagine what might have happened if he hadn’t been hi-jacked into show business – a Joe Cocker trajectory (songwise at least) maybe?  Because the voice – a proper, open chested singing voice, shades of the gospel grounded black American soul voice  – has always been there.   And so it came to pass that I did buy a Tom Jones album, because just hearing a smattering of John Lee Hooker’s ‘Burning hell’ from his pared down ‘Praise & blame‘ album sent shivers down my backbone.  And I have not been disappointed.  Less is more and I guess in many ways this roots – his musical roots – testament of a collection could not have happened without all the show biz rest.  This music moves … body too.

I’ve also been spending time with Anais Mitchell‘s folk-jazz opera Depression era setting of the Eurydice and Orpheus myth, ‘Hadestown‘.  Scored by Michael Chorney, and with a different voice for each character, it works  beautifully.  Some of the haunting songs have a real  aria-like quality and the ominous chant of the chorus in  ‘Why we build the wall’ is a dramatic triumph, exhilarating and chilling.  Pink Floyd eat your heart out.  And a useful blast from the past: early rising and tiredness tempered for me by Alan Stivell‘s ‘Renaissance de la harpe celtique‘ downstairs with  headphones.  The plaintive harp, the lyrical strings coming in and disappearing, the lovingly spare percussive episodes, they don’t get me back to sleep but I emerge refreshed, a meditative state achieved, you might say.  Always a smile when at a certain stage the strains of ‘Whiskey in the jar’ beak through.

What else?  How much longer will we continue to watch ‘Hollyoaks‘ now that Kris Fisher, the Belfast born twenty something bisexual cross dresser has left for London?  Gerard McCarthy’s performance as one of the great comic soap characters of all time will be sorely missed as the new producer brings in an ex-professional footballer’s family (boring!) as part of a new broom on the show, the only soap we’ve consistently watched for a decade.  Why couldn’t he get rid of Myra?  Kris’s upfront personality, at turns selfish and full of compassion, shone on may levels, comic, charismatic and deadly serious; there’s an extensive Wikipedia entry will give you some idea.   I laughed out loud more at the first episode of Channel4’s ‘Pete versus Life‘ than at anything like for a long time.  Rafe Spall is nicely downbeat as Pete but the counterpoint of the two sports commentators addressing Pete’s dodgy decisions, dilemmas and performance adds another dimension; their interplay among themselves a neat sub-plot in itself. (Added later that night: shame the second one came nowhere near).

Footie season again.  The news that Cesc Fabregas is staying at Arsenal gives us something to hope for, while Theo’s performance against Hungary warmed the cockles too; this could be the season.  Bad news is those bastards at Sky taking Sky Sports News off Freeview and drawing it back into the Murdoch empire, where I just will not go.  Ever since he took over the Sun newspaper British society has generally been going downhill; and they still have a page three nude.  Shame.  Missing ‘Soccer Saturday‘ will be a wrench though the great Jeff Stelling continues to shine on Countdown.  While I’m at it, never seem to miss a ‘University Challenge‘ these days; come on you red bricks!  On the wildlife front, a little egret on the Ouse and in the back garden a young thrush smashing snails’ shells on the step up to the lawn.

And another good man gone. Much saddened at the death of Jimmy Reid, who meant a lot to me.    I’ve added some thoughts on Jimmy in the Glimpses part of  Lillabullero.  The older you get the more personal the Obituary columns become, eh?

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Nothing I’ve read in ages has made me think more than Mat Coward’s ‘Acts of destruction’ (Alia Mondo Press, 2009).   I  seem to have forgotten that it is possible to think there can be alternatives to the ways societies and economies function.  There really hasn’t been much thought given in the arts to what might be possible to routinely survive without cataclysm if a drastic shift of priorities – fuel, food, weather – forces change upon us.

A century ago we had H.G.Wells to help us contemplate the global picture; today we have my old Kentish Town Library comrade, old style socialist, gardener and cricket follower Mat Coward.  ‘Acts of destruction‘ is a humourous crime novel, a gentlish police procedural with an interesting crew of characters set in a very changed North London of the near future.  You can sample a couple of chapters at one of his websites – http://www.matcoward.com – for a flavour.  There is invention, wit and wisdom aplenty – the revival of mutton as sound ethical eating, say, outdating the vegetarian solution (and you have to book in advance to have rice in Indian restaurants); the likening of recent governments’ obsession with lifestyle legislation to teenage self-harming (the government has to have control of something) makes a certain sense, for all that Mat has this thing about a smoker’s right to choose – get over it, mate, please.

This is socialism in one country, democratic, participatory, ICT where it matters, existing without interference from the main surviving capitalist blocs of Europe and Northern America, who have problems enough of their own; rumours abound of yankee Christian snatch squads ‘liberating’ the godless children of the land.  There’s a whiff of the ’40s and the Attlee government and though the history of the Process (the word revolution being non grata) isn’t detailed, the logic of how things now are is explained in conversation and discussion of   ‘the old days’ and new ways.  The changes – horses, bikes, rationing save for what you grow, almost total recycling – must have an impact on police priorities; it’s obvious if you think about it, but there’s still the odd murder to contend with, even if the motives can sometimes change too.

My big query is what has happened to popular culture – where is it, what is it?  Mat promises this to be a series, so I’m looking forward to finding out.

I’ve also just read John Harvey‘s neat little collection of short stories – with the bonus of an introductory essay about how Charlie Resnick came about – ‘Minor key‘ (Five Leaves, 2009).  Always a pleasure to meet Resnick again, albeit in short doses.  Thoughtful, evocative pieces.  But for all Harvey’s love of the subject, I suspect we can probably do without the jazz novel – ’50s, heroin etc – he threatens he might be introducing here, in the non-Resnick story; can’t see many surprises coming from there to match reality.

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